Buddy System

Understanding men and their friendships.

Can Men and Women Just Be Friends?

Men and women as friends? Most in study say possible.

Three-quarters of the men in my research with 386 men (see Buddy System: Understanding male friendships) believe men and women can be friends.  Barry, white, married, and a 44-year-old electrician who was interviewed said, "I am more comfortable with women. I don't have to prove anything to them, especially if I am not in a dating situation with them.  They give better advice than guys. They are easier to talk to. Guys are always trying to figure out who is the big dog.  Whatever it is, the guys are always competing.  They compete about how much money you make, what college you went to, what your skills are. They try and 'one up' each other.  Women don't do that."

Leland, an African American 40-year-old married bank manager, focuses more on the positives of a female friendship, rather than on what he is avoiding in male friendships.  "I have a lot of female friends that are nonsexual in nature. To maintain those, I am open and honest with them. When they want to talk about their relationships, I can tell them from a male perspective about how a man is thinking or how he should be treated."

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About 65% of the 122 women interviewed for the book said they have platonic male friends, not quite as many as the men. Iris, is a white 62-year-old single chaplain who counts men among her friends.  "I have a close friendship with a man whom I have known for years. I maintain it with phone calls. It is a little like my female friendships in that we talk about a whole range of topics, but we don't really do the social types of things I do with my female friends." Carol, who is engaged, is a 28-year-old white therapist. She talks about the transition from being single to being in a couple's relationship and the impact on friendships. She also alludes to sexual tension that exists below the surface. "I've had many close male friends, but I don't have any right now. I don't know if that comes from having a significant other. As an adult I have had a number of very close male friends that I have lived with, not in a sexual way. I have found these friends to be very supportive, understanding, and validating. Maybe that is just the kind of guy I am attracted to as a friend.  The difference is the phyiscal aspect. You are not afraid to hug your girlfriends."

Of course platonic friendships are possible as these three example show but we all know they get complicated when physical attraction and lack of transparency comes into the picture. They also get complicated when people are in a committed relationship with someone else.  Many people I have interviewed about relationships say they were friends first and then became involved.  This is the scene set in many movies where friends come to find each other in the end.  This would be contrasted with people who go to dating websites or those who meet someone at work, the park, or in a bar and are immediately physically attracted to them - friendship is not the primary motivator.

The point is that the majority of people believe friendships between the sexes is possible. The majority of people, I suspect, also know what their own parameters are and when those friendships are safe as friendships and when boundaries might be crossed. In that case, the friendship is at risk, and a marriage or partnership (if one of the friends is in one) may be in jeopardy.  I return to the need for transparency.  Know enough about yourself to understand when a friendship is possible and when you are being friendly with the hope of developing a love relationship - the latter happens when you are physically as well as emotionally attracted to someone. There is no right or wrong way to do this but being honest with yourself (I admit I am being nice to this person in the hopes of getting them to like me) may prevent confusion and hurt feelings down the road.

Geoffrey Greif, Ph.D., is a Professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work and author of Buddy System: Understanding Male Friendships.

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